An Analysis of the Signalman as the Nineteenth Century Supernatural Short Story Lamb To the Slaughter

‘The Signalman,’ is a nineteenth century supernatural short story. ‘Lamb to the Slaughter,’ is a twentieth century crime short story. Both have a twist in the tale. In this essay I will look at how the authors create and maintain a sense of suspense throughout the texts.

Roald Dahl was born in Wales in 1919. He was educated at a boarding school for boys. His harsh treatment there led him in later life to write stories of cruelty and revenge. ‘ Lamb to the Slaughter,’ is a fine example of this. It opens in a house in suburban America. You know it is set in America as Dahl refers to the Police Station as a “Precinct,” and also to the death penalty. The setting has a composed feeling and is described as being “tranquil.” Dahl goes out of his way to make it as innocent as possible. Everything is almost too relaxed, so indirectly tension has already been created. Throughout the text the description is kept as minimal as possible. Much is left to the reader’s imagination. I believe this is because the twentieth century reader has access to many more media forms than the nineteenth century reader. For example, if you can associate what you see on television with an object in a book the author doesn’t need to describe it. The nineteenth century reader wouldn’t have had access to these media forms so there is a lot more description in ‘The Signalman.’

The story is written in third person narrative although it has a lot of direct speech. This gives a sense of observing the two main characters, Mary and Patrick Maloney. Throughout the story there is no description of Mary Maloney. I believe this is so that the reader can create his or her own image of Mary. Dahl starts to build up the suspense when you read how Patrick does “An unusual thing.” This adds a lot of tension. Although ultimately this is a crime story there is an element of black comedy, and also a heavy use of irony, which is the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. One of the best examples of irony is when the detectives are looking for the murder weapon. One detective says to the other it’s probably “right under our very noses,” The irony being that it is. One of the main similarities between this and ‘The Signalman,’ is that both highlight violent deaths.

‘The Signalman,’ is a short story written by Charles Dickens in the nineteenth century. At this time England was going through a lot of changes. It was the industrial revolution. Among the new technologies was the creation of the railway system. This story is Dickens way of expressing his doubts and possibly his fear of these changes. Despite there being over a hundred years between when the two stories were written, there are still similarities. One of these is the way the authors feature death. An example of how Dickens uses death to sustain suspense throughout the story is the death of strangers. The two characters in ‘The Signalman,’ are both strangers to the reader. We don’t even learn their names. This could have been because they were working class men.

At the time it was written, it was considered there was no need to. As a consequence of their anonymity the risk is always there that they could die. This adds to the suspense greatly. The setting doesn’t have the cosy feeling that Dahl gave. It is lonely and isolated throughout and is described as being “clammy,” and, “unusual.” This supernatural setting helps too create a lot of tension. The only character description in the text, is that of the signalman, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. He is described as being “foreshortened,” and, “shadowed.” This certainly isn’t a description of a ‘normal person,’ and some tension is created. The style of writing and the use of first person narrative, gives the reader a sense that they could be the narrator as a pose to observing him. The twist in the tale occurs at the end. It is completely unexpected that the signalman might die so it comes as a shock to the reader.

One of the major similarities is the influence the author’s upbringings have on their writing. This is very apparent in both the texts. Other similarities include the violent deaths of main characters and tension being used to keep the reader in suspense.

Both stories were easy to read. My personal favourite was ‘Lamb to The Slaughter.’ I didn’t like Dickens use of description. I think he over used it and the text became more of a chore to read. I preferred the way Dahl used black comedy and irony to create tension.

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